Like most games journalists, I have friends on the inside. I know people who work closely with myriad products at many studios around the world and often am told about wonderful things in development. I’m told these things, because I don’t chase clicks (in this way) and respect the relationships and friendships I’ve built in my more than 15-year tenure as a games journalist.
I’ve known about Evolve for quite a while thanks to the above, and while I’ve never seen the game firsthand prior to this preview, my sources were very, very excited to talk about the game.
There’s a reason for that, too. Left 4 Dead came out of nowhere and helped the co-operative gaming experience return to the high-life again. It’s formula was one we could all relate to -- four survivors of a zombie apocalypse had to fight their way through a ferocious undead gauntlet. Zombies weren’t slow, though, and this along with some of the monsters the team created, as well as the heavy-handed “Director” AI system lead to some of the most memorable co-op experiences of many a player’s life.
So while the formula was one we could all understand, it was the subtle-yet-game-changing components of enemies and how the game flipped its script on you every time that set the game apart. So has the studio capitialised on the concept of familiar, new and ever-changing challenge with their latest venture, Evolve, and what does it mean for that co-op playspace they helped reignite a few years ago?
First, some housekeeping: this is not a spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead, nor does it appear the studio is doing anything to mimic that game or its success beyond the actual co-op foundation. Four-vs-one (or #4V1) is how it’s being cleverly pitched, and in place of the very deceptive and devious AI “director” I mentioned before, Turtle Rock has taken the enemy/goal component of their new outing to the next level -- human.
What’s interesting about having four players attack a single player-controlled alien boss, is that the game’s overall setting, and some of the classes and their aesthetics, lend the activity to less of a “survival” angle for the four human characters and players, and more in line with hunting. This leaves the hulking beast the other player takes control of, regardless of strength, ability or ugliness, as the victim and makes his or her plight the survival one. And you’ll be surprised at how impactful this idea is when you actually play the game proper as the alien for the first time.
Of course none of this is to say Evolve is some kind of high-end experiment the team built around being members of PETA or whatever, because there’s plenty of other stuff here to keep the experience pumping along as a videogame first and foremost. Human classes are all familiar, with Assault, Medic, Support and Trapper. The latter obviously builds towards the “hunter and prey” component I mentioned earlier, and this class does have a unique set of tools such as being able to tether the creature down and keep it relatively confined for a short period. But it’s ultimately the team, and teamwork, that will go towards bagging your trophy. The other classes are all pretty self-explanatory, so the real differentiator comes in the play-space and the creature that you’re all hunting.
It was in my second jaunt as the creature that I really started to understand the nuances of Evolve. My first hands-on was with Support followed by Assault, and in each confrontation, I dominated in terms of score (represented by the amount of damage you’re able to inflict on the alien) landing one and two overall, respectively. But I did so, because I know how to play a first-person shooter. When I first became the creature (who you play in the third-person, mind), I evolved once (more on this in a minute) but was pretty much destroyed within the first 10 minutes of play. The reasons, I could argue, were varied but in all honesty it’s because I didn’t really know how to play a game as prey. Instead, I did my best Incredible Hulk impersonation and just attempted to Smash! everyone. But this alien creature is no jade giant and can be felled at the capable hands of a decent team.
My second playthrough then, saw me going against every reactive bone in my body and moving the giant creature around the game-world in its stealth stance. The alien environment we played in was 90% jungle and 10% man-made structure. Verticality plays a role in level-design, as does subterrania, and it was in moving myself underground and toying
with my would-be hunters that the game started to shine. At some point, you are going to need to engage, but when you’re in your stealth stance, the enemy can’t see you, but the creature does have an echolocation ability that allows him to see the enemy moving throughout. This allows you to shift about, unhindered, and potentially lay in ambush of your hunters.
However, you’re also able to evolve into two other stages which is done by eating the other animal life strewn about the environments (some of these are elite beasts that reward the humans and alien alike with buffs). Doing so, if you’re close enough to the enemy, can alert them to your position, but if you want to have any sort of fighting chance you really need to level up. Moreover, while you can play a game of cat and mouse for a while, there are no other objectives, at least in the confrontation we played, to serve up an endgame result beyond killing the creature, killing the humans or destroying a generator to be able to go and attack a human colony (which is also a win scenario). It’s likely there’ll be more on the mission agenda in other game-modes or on other maps, but the bare-bones nature of what we were shown has me hoping that there really isn’t any outcomes besides straight-up defeat of alien or humans (even if it is via colony).
In keeping the videogame aspect of the experience intact though, you can also level up through continued play and go into scenarios with different, unlocked abilities. Again, we didn’t really have much of a chance to go into this side of the game as we were only able to play one game-mode and one map, but there’s a lot of promised variety within, including different creatures to play as.
We all played the game on PC and visually it was pretty to behold. More of a look at what else is on offer needs to be key to make any sort of call about the overall visual presentation (I’m hoping for some seriously alien, out-of-this-world environments), and the build was still early, but the jungle environment was lush while the futuristic sci-fi weapons and subsequent effects were all more than palatable. There’s also a level of caricature to the characters and creatures on-hand that makes the game feel fun. The hunter/prey thing is easily a dark enough premise on its own, so it’s good to see Turtle Rock is having fun with their new world.
At this stage, the game on either side of the fence is very fun, but I’d be lying if I didn’t sway more towards that of the alien. There’s just something about a hulking creature being ganged up on I can’t help but want to be a part of, as far as helping the alien win. It’s not a helpless creature though, by any measure, rather it’s an engaging and new way to play this type of game and offers a rare glimpse into the world of the downtrodden videogame boss character. Only this time, it’s not the AI your buddies are butting heads with, now the boss has a secret weapon up its sleeve -- you.